Readings: The Woman's Face

Frankly, because I studied in France for a year, I sympathize with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government has passed a law against women wearing the niqab in public. (The niqab is a total face covering, as distinguished from the hijab, which refers to the entire head-to-toe garment.) Belgium instituted a similar ban this summer and Italy, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland are preparing legislation. The proposed laws are a gesture to preserve a culture—or the appearances of a culture—which until recently characterized Western Europe. Turkey, a conservative Muslim country, prohibits public servants from wearing the niqab or the hijab.

The presence of the black-robed figure covered from head to foot with nothing visible but two eyes is open to a whole range of interpretations. As Reza Aslan makes clear in No god but God, the veil was not prescribed by Muhammed, but was worn in several civilizations long before him. To Lord Cromer, the British general consul to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, the veil symbolized “the degradation of women,” proof of the failure of Islamic civilization. To an Iranian political philosopher Ali Shariati the veil represented female chastity, piety and defiance of the Western image.


When we meet the veiled woman on the streets of Jersey City—I’ve seen hardly any in Manhattan—we wonder what she is trying to say to us. “Out of my way, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t try to talk to me.” “My husband makes me wear this. He sees me as his property.” “I just like my privacy.” It is difficult to not interpret it as defiance or at least rejection of one’s surroundings.

Unfortunately the law has had unintended consequences in France. The Guardian tells the story of Stephanie, a convert to Islam at 17, whose marriage ended because her in-laws did not like her wearing the veil. She was arrested for swimming wearing a niqab, but the prosecutor let her go. Now people greet her with swear words and sexual insults. Rachid Nekkaz, a French businessman, personally opposes wearing the veil, but he leads an association against outlawing it in all public places other than government buildings.

Two years ago when I was teaching at Saint Peter’s College I passed a woman in the hallway so robed that even her eyes were only barely visible. I asked myself what I would do if she enrolled in my class. I already had several decorum rules which, for me, affect the quality of classroom interaction. For those 50 minutes, class is a formal encounter. Our discussion of the readings demands all our attention. So: no hats or hoods, no cell-phones, no eating or drinking, no taking out your cosmetics kit to do your eyes or nails. There is a kind of teaching where the professor just stands up there and tells the students what they should know and sends them home. What one wears—or even whether one is there—doesn’t matter.

As I see it, a school and a classroom are, or should be, communities. I would no more welcome a veil on a woman than I would a ski-mask on a man. The mask says you are hiding, you don’t want to be a member. Jesuit educational principles call upon the teacher to know the students well. They call it cura personalis, caring for the person. If I’m going to teach you, I have to know you—see you light up, smile, resist or frown. At least I have to see your face.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.


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Marie Rehbein
7 years 3 months ago
I can see where this kind of dress protected women in the past.  It prevents anyone from claiming "she asked for it".  Some women may dress this way because they are used to it.  However, some men may dress this way, because they are trying to go undetected, as we have seen in a bombing in Afghanistan (I think that's where this happened).  It seems to me that prohibiting someone from dressing this way in the classroom is overstepping one's authority, and it seems disrespectful of the sensibilities of others.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 3 months ago
Dunno, but it seems to me that the veil is very much a sexual symbol.  What you don't see, but is left to the imagination, can be as provocative (or more so) than more revealing forms of dress.  Something that is deliberately hidden can be more desirable than that which is in plain view.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 3 months ago

If the way of one's culture is to dress a certain way, it seems presumptuous to me for someone from another culture to insist that one change it, even if one is in the homeland of that other culture.  For me it's a two way street in that I object to seeing American women reporting from Muslim countries wearing headscarves when they are not Muslim.

Given that the teacher in a classroom has more authority than the students, it seems particularly offensive to me for the teacher even to suggest that the student from a foriegn culture dress less conservatively that she is used to, never mind to insist on it.  Imagine having to disrobe in order to take a class in religion...
Crystal Watson
7 years 3 months ago
If it was up to me, I would ban wearing the niqab in public.  I think the wearing of a total face covering is not a religious issue - the wearing of it isn't demanded by Islamic law -  but a culturally driven discrimination against women issue.  Maybe some right-wing  groups in Europe want to ban them for nationalistic reasons, but there's no intrinsic link between banning face coverings and xenophobia/jingoism.  And maybe some women actually want to wear the niqab, but I still believe the practice is basically misogynistic.

BTW, Fr. Schroth, I recently read your article "Bonhoeffer was wrong" and thought it was very good.
Anne Chapman
7 years 3 months ago
Marie,  women reporters in many Muslim countries have no choice as far as hair covering goes. In some Muslim countries, all women, including those who are not Muslims, are required to cover their hair and conform to all other dress codes (full-body coverage to the ankles for example).  It's the law. Some Muslim countries also ban non-Muslims from exhibiting any outward sign of their religious beliefs (such as a cross or crucifix). Some refuse to let Christians bring a bible or other non-Muslim religious texts into the country, nor are non-Muslims allowed to worship in their own faith.

Crystal, I agree with you on banning face-coverings in our country and other countries should have the right to do so also (ie, France).  Unfortunately, in addition to being a sign of misogny, it can be a security issue.  A few years ago the state of Florida required a woman to remove her face covering for her driver's license photo.  She took it to court, and lost. I don't know what she decided to do, but the courts upheld the state laws requiring a photo of the driver's face for all who wish to have a license. 
Crystal Watson
7 years 3 months ago

 I remember reading about that case in Florida.  Most states have laws against people covering their faces, some of them on the books since the time of the KKK  ....


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